Jimmy Patsos was in his first season at Loyola when Pat Kennedy, then entering his second year at Towson and coming off a 5-24 season, proclaimed the Tigers to be Baltimore's college basketball team. Other local coaches might have chuckled at Kennedy's remark, but Patsos, raised near the chips on the shoulders of Gary Williams, took it as a personal challenge.
"The last I looked," Patsos said at the time, "we're in Baltimore."
But deep down, Patsos knew that Loyola could have been on Mars when it came to Baltimore players. The administration at the Jesuit school wasn't recruiting many students — let alone athletes who weren't carrying lacrosse sticks — from Baltimore. The basketball players coming out of Baltimore had never made it that far north on Charles Street.
Kennedy was fired after last season and Patsos, in his eighth year coaching the Greyhounds, has Loyola off to an 8-1 start, the best in the school's three decades in Division I. After inheriting a 1-27 team "with one kid from within 100 miles" of Baltimore, Patsos is building a program filled with them and others from Maryland, as well as Washington and Northern Virginia.
Put it this way: Patsos, who lives in Mount Vernon, said that he walked to St. Frances to recruit freshman point guard R.J. Williams, as well as Josh Forney, a 6-9 center from the same school who has signed a letter of intent for next season. The team's leading scorer is sophomore guard Dylon Cormier, who starred at Cardinal Gibbons.
Cormier said that his team's recent domination in the local rivalry games has helped give the program some street cred in Baltimore. Loyola beat Coppin State and UMBC in its current seven-game winning streak, and has lost only one of its past nine games against the schools in or near Baltimore.
"Everybody knows pretty much where we're at. We're building our program to be a nice, Top 25 mid-major team," said Cormier, who leads the Greyhounds with nearly 18 points a game. "To get to that level, we've got to keep playing hard and playing as a team. It's working so far."
With its only loss this season coming at Wake Forest, Loyola will see how much progress it has made when the Greyhounds play Sunday at St. Bonaventure and on Thursday at Rupp Arena against No. 3 Kentucky.
Regardless of the outcome of those games, the buzz around the city has started to build. Loyola is 2-0 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the first time and is ranked 15th among mid-major teams by ESPN.com.
"I just want to win the MAAC," said Patsos, whose team was picked to finish third. "My concern is that when I got here, there were three levels [of Division I basketball] and we were in the middle — the BCS [schools], the mid-major and the low major. There's this new thing with VCU, Butler, St. Joe's, Xavier. Towson's got a new arena. We've got to keep up with the Joneses. And that's what worries me about how good we can get here. I like the facility, I love the campus. But can we catch those other teams because they've taken the next step…"
Becoming Baltimore's team could be the catalyst, according to second-year athletic director Jim Paquette.
"There's a window of opportunity here to be Baltimore's basketball team, and that's what we want to be," said Paquette, who came to Loyola after spending 16 years at Boston College. "I'm not saying that we're going to be Butler or Gonzaga, but the blueprint is definitely there — Marquette, Providence College. It's exciting when you come to our games, particularly the weekend games, you see the Baltimore community represented."
Said R.J. Williams, "A lot of local people come to see us now. We have a lot of fans who are familiar with us from our high school career."
Williams said that he chose Loyola over Towson and Morgan State, as well as some small mid-major programs out of town, "because they showed the love towards me recruiting-wise" beginning when he was a sophomore in high school.
St. Frances coach Nick Myles said that Patsos and his staff — including top assistant G.G. Smith, the son of Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, and former Loyola player Greg Manning — "have made Baltimore a priority in their recruiting" and in the case of Williams and others, "have been on kids early."
Myles said that Patsos is doing what Todd Bozeman has done in turning around Morgan State. But the foundation for Loyola's current success attracting Baltimore kids to stay home was laid a few years ago by former player Gerald Brown.
After starting his career at Providence, Brown returned to his hometown to finish out at Loyola under Patsos.
"He was a starter there but he had a child and he came home. He told everyone that it was all right to come to school here," Patsos said Friday, sitting courtside at Reitz Arena after practice. "Charlie Bell was the only local kid I had when I got here, and now we have eight. It just took a little longer than I thought to get the local kids."
Another of Patsos' current players, sophomore forward Jordan Latham (City), is following in Brown's footsteps. After playing his freshman year at Xavier, Latham returned to Baltimore even though he knew that it meant coming off the bench this season behind senior Shane Walker.
"Now there's a great kid," Patsos said. "He could have sat out this year and had three [seasons of eligibility]. He said, 'If I come off the bench we could have a really good season.' You don't find that anymore."
Patsos, who grew up in Boston and played college basketball at Catholic University in Washington, also credits "Father Brian" — Reverend Brian Linnane, Loyola's president for the past seven years — for helping change the school's image when it came to shaping a more diverse campus.
"He's been the best thing that's happened. He buys into the Baltimore thing," Patsos said. "He's been great for me, on and off the court. He saw what basketball did for Holy Cross, but the first thing he wanted to do was get involved with Baltimore. The school has changed. The diversity has gone up across the board. Applications have gone up from 7,000 to 12,000 [a year]. Basketball is a small part of it. … The star of the school is the school itself. "
Patsos is not limiting himself to only players from within the city, but he knows in order to compete in the MAAC, a New York-centric league made up of small, mostly Jesuit schools with athletic budgets geared mostly to basketball, Patsos has to recruit like crazy in a town known for producing Division I talent. Maybe he won't get the players heading to Maryland, but he might get players like Walker, who started his career in College Park after playing at Montrose Christian and is finishing it at Loyola with realistic dreams of playing in Europe.
"Get good kids that like each other who want to play hard and win," Patsos said. "Baltimore's produced a lot of those kids. Of course there's Carmelo [Anthony]. I don't care whether Quintin Dailey had his issues or not, he was a great player and he won. I didn't see Skip Wise. Steve Wojciechowski or Sam Cassell. Baltimore's always produced those kinds of players. We just couldn't get them to come here."